The implications of how iCloud stores your data (and other philosophical ramblings)

Apple's iCloud, Amazon, Google, everyone is pushing for "the cloud". The concept is to centralize data storage remotely and then share/sync that data back across all devices. A lot of current manufacturers will now be using the cloud concept to force vertical integration across all their products, apps and devices - i.e. by shipping hardware devices with no physical memory.

Why should you care? For the majority of people, this is not a big deal. My guess is people will accept the tradeoff because it simplifies data storage and improves their quality of life. However, the issue of data portability and whether or not companies will use the data as leverage to keep you locked in as a customer will eventually pop up. I anticipate that companies that support data portability, as well as gov't intervention will eventually equalize the playing field so that consumers can store their data wherever they like. That debate is probably a few years away though.

Despite how free and open the internet seems, it costs money to power and manage servers and store data (and to backup that data). One alternative to the cloud is to run your own local file server at home - for tech saavy folks this is a great option. These NAS (Network Attached Storage) file servers can be accessed across multiple devices and even prevent data loss if you get one with RAID. I believe some allow you to remotely access your data from the web as well, so its like creating your own local, private cloud*.

*NOTE: It's important to note that cloud storage is not just a hard drive in the sky but part of a new approach to software development. The point is that cloud storage abstracts our data in new ways with metadata...going beyond files and folders with physical memory addresses.

Cloud storage costs money too and right now most offer around 5 GB free with various per-gigabyte subscription models. My guess is that cloud storage will become part of other service costs such as your cell phone or internet bill. But until then, a NAS file server is a cheaper option especially if you have terabytes of data.

But as devices change their design to work with networked storage, will local data storage disappear from the market entirely? Will we be living in a weird abstract world where the entire universe of data lives in a big nebulous redundant network and "our data" is just data tagged with our name?

Such a hyper connected world raises some philosophical questions. The internet, along with advances in genetics and 3D printing challenge our accepted notions of individuality, uniqueness, intelligence and humanity. What does it mean to be different? What does it mean to be connected? If we had the choice to control every single aspect of our environment and universe and experience, would it make our lives better or drive us all to madness? What is the point of all of this stuff? Might be time to review some Dostoevsky and Nietzsche...

On Cool Kids signing with Mountain Dew

I can't fully articulate my reaction to reading this interview a few weeks back, but a couple things stick out:

1) It's crazy they got so entangled in label difficulties putting out a *debut* album. That doesn't make any sense. They signed a bad deal with Chocolate Industries when they were already booking shows with only 2 Myspace demos. Why did they even need a record label? Why did they go this route?

2) They sound really bitter and jaded in this interview.

3) Mountain Dew, a fizzy drink company, offers musicians better contracts than a record label which is supposedly designed for that exact purpose. Huh?

4) Cool Kids are working for a mega huge company that sells a product unrelated to their work. That's kinda weird. Maybe they really love mountain dew and it is essential for making their music?

20" Kick

20" x 14" kick, fully assembled. Found a new hoop and fixed an old hoop with fresh paint. Used some hardware from an older marching bass drum I had. Just needs some spurs so it doesn't roll around but otherwise complete. 20" Evans EMAD batter side, 20" Aquarian Regulator reso side. I've had really good luck with that combo.

Drum shell finished (with pictures)

For as long as I can remember, I've generally relied on a satin polyurethane spray for wood finishes. But reading about tung oil and how it makes the grain "pop" (technical term is chatoyancy) I was curious to try it, despite my hesitancy about its overall durability compared to urethane or lacquer.

I started out with 100% pure tung oil, thinned 50% with spirits and applied by hand. Originally I didn't care about building a sheen. I'm not sure why I became kinda obsessed with it, maybe because the wet look of the tung oil was so hypnotizing, and when it dried the contrasting flatness could not compete.

So halfway through I started blending in glossy spar urethane with the oil to try and build a slight satin sheen. That sort of worked as the glossiness set in the pores and in some of the grain, but altogether it was uneven.

Against my better judgement I kept fiddling to try and even things out. I applied pure oil which flattened everything too much, then tried to reapply the blend which ended up streaking again. Finally I decided to put a coat of spar urethane and end things once and for all. It turned out super glossy, which I didn't want initially, but at least it is even and now super tough. If I decide I don't like the gloss in the future I can sand down to the oil finish and try building it back up or try buffing the oil with wax (the right way to get that soft satin sheen).

Raw, no finish (click to enlarge):

After about 2 coats of tung oil:

About 3 coats of 33/33/33 blend, a few minutes after application (deceptive as it is still wet)

Final product, dry, glossy because of the spar urethane

Overall I'm happy with it and looking forward to putting it all together and playing it as part of a kit!

Drum restoration update (pictures)

Finally! I'm done stripping and sanding the drum shells. Yes, it really took this long. Part of it was that removing the glue adhesive from the shells was really time consuming; it took about 5-8 full sheets of 60 grit paper. I believe mahogany was chosen as the outer ply not for its looks but because it has large pores and adhesive really gets down in there, making it easy to glue the wrap on (great for them, bad for me). The other reason it took a while is because the weather has been cold and there is a moratorium on sanding in my apartment (mahogany dust flying around = not good).

I also had to take some time to fix some bearing edge issues (bearing edge = the edge where the drum head touches the shell). I filled holes with plastic wood putty and for warped areas I used a bunch of clamps + gorilla glue to get it back into shape.

I sanded the basic outer shell with 60 grit, then 100 grit, then finally 220 grit. The inside of the floor tom was in good condition and I didn't touch it. The interior of the kick drum shell I sanded with 100 grit and then 220. The inside of the kick is pretty gnarly, the reinforcing rings were reglued at some point in time, and I believe the shell has some water damage (evidence is cracking of the veneer and some water spots/mold spots). I also sanded through too far at some spots revealing some of the underlying poplar ply. At this point, the imperfections will have to be what makes these drums interesting...

So now the final step is finishing. In keeping with the labor intensive aspect of this project I'm going to use pure tung oil as a finish. It can take weeks to fully cure. *shakes head* But it will look pretty good, I think, as tung oil will accent the natural wood grain.

Sanded shells, ready for finishing

Bearing edge hole (filled it with wood putty)

Fixing warped bearing edge with gorilla glue + clamps

Tools of the trade

Workspace/Living room invasion. p.s. Buckets are awesome.

Pictures of the 1964 Slingerland kit I picked up

The two '64 mahogany drum shells I bought from Terry had a pearl shimmer vinyl drum wrap that somebody had spray painted black. He had also given me an old Leedy 14"x10" snare shell from 1959 that had a natural finish showing the outer mahogany. My goal is to strip away the black drum wrap and refinish to show the natural wood tone. Despite being over 50 years old these drums were in pretty good condition. I found that a heat gun was my best friend to try to remove the gunk and wrap residue.

Black wrap still on the kick, floor tom with stubborn wrap plastic, '59 snare shell on the right

Kick drum. Check out the Walberg Auge rail which is used to attach a rack tom.

'59 snare: mahogany-poplar-mahogany construction.

The inside of the drum is stamped with the year it was made - 1959. The M stands for a mahogany exterior finish.

Sounds of a different drummer

Around this time last year, I stumbled upon some youtube videos by (an online cymbal retailer). I think at the time I was searching for some new thin hi-hats, something with a bit more crisp and sizzle than my previous pair. What's great about the site is you can browse forever and listen to different versions of the same cymbal (since no two cymbals, even the same make/model, sound the same) and then purchase that exact cymbal from their website. Really smart idea, especially since trying out cymbals in the store is really time consuming and the inventory is usually limited. I fell in love with two cymbals, the Istanbul Agop 24" Signature Joey Waronker Ride and a used pair of Meinl 14" Byzance Jazz Thin Hi Hats. The Joey Waronker was especially interesting because it seemed to have a sense of *color* and *shimmer* without being too clean sounding.

Partly inspired by Greg Saunier of Deerhoof's minimal setup, I've been thinking about selling my current kit and stripping down to a smaller setup with a 20"x14" kick, 13"x7" snare, cheapo GP hi-hats, and a (new?) ride cymbal. I originally wanted to get Emperor cabs to build a custom kit for me, or possibly even Precision Drum with their split/latch bassdrum, but both quoted me over $1000 for the job. So I went to craigslist and stumbled upon an amazing find: a guy named Terry selling a 1964 Slingerland Mahogany-poplar-maple 3ply 20"x14" kick and a 16"x16" tom shells. I had read really good things about these old mahogany kits and the price was right (super cheap!), despite them needing some work.

Terry is a walking encyclopedia of drum knowledge. He can tell you what type of wood each company used in what decade and when they switched their factory line to China and where the wood comes from. He spoke to me for over an hour and a half, first telling me the history of the drums I was buying from him, and then he showed me his basement which was filled to the brim with drumkits from Gretsch, Slingerland, Ludwig and more, all made of various materials and from various decades. Terry obviously had a problem, he was obsessed with collecting drums! In the end he gave me 3 amazing vintage mahogany shells for less than the price he asked for on craigslist (without me even haggling). Awesome, awesome guy. He has some videos on youtube under the username bonzoleum where he demonstrates and teaches how to play Jon Bonham / Led Zeppelin songs.

Since I was already out in the suburbs, I headed over to Steve Maxwell's Vintage and Custom drum shop. I tried out about 20-30 cymbals and ended up selecting a few favorites: A Spizzichino 18" ride, a vintage K Zildjian 18" ride, and an Istanbul Agop Traditional 22" ride. The guy in the store (who turned out to be Steve Maxwell himself) schooled me on how they order cymbals for the store, even getting down to the number of grams the cymbal weighs and how that affects the sound. He told me about Spizzichino which was my favorite, and unfortunately one of the most expensive cymbals they had. The vintage K was the only cymbal more expensive than the Spizzichino. Apparently I have an expensive ear. Dammit...

Spizzichino is one guy - a cymbal maker in Italy hand hammering his cymbals from bronze blanks. He has a really unique perspective on the craft and after watching this video I have only become more obsessed with these cymbals. The only way I can describe the sound is...colorful...complex. I almost wish I had never heard these cymbals, because they are that good. Some say he makes the best cymbals in the world.

Spizzichino from Alex Healey on Vimeo.

Slow Steam

So after my last post I did a ton of research and it turns out lots of people feel that there is great potential in an open social web. It is true that "social" is on a fearsome trending streak. But when you think about it, the web has always been social (email, AIM) so what's really changed?

I would say two things are responsible for the uptick over the last decade. First is that as people learn the language of social computing, they gain more power through the language. Somebody tweeting has a greater social advantage than somebody not tweeting. The tipping point happens when it becomes a disadvantage *not* to be tweeting.

The second reason is that technology is getting exponentially easier to understand. Good design practices and tech advances mean that the learning curve is dropping - people are adapting faster to keep up and at the same time demand more. Moore's law has crept from hardware to software, and now into our social lives.

Of course nobody can predict what technologies will trend and what won't, or even how long they'll last. Humans are complex social creatures. But I do feel that as social creatures our need to be social will break down barriers. The concept of Facebook or any one entity having a monopoly on social networking just doesn't make sense to me long term. Eventually all networks will have to open their doors and communicate with the wider web, and see each other as equally valuable. I'm not saying cliques and private networks won't exist - sure, but there will be an ongoing need for an open and standardized way to create an online identity as well as push and receive messages to and from friends, both through messages as well as real time.

I'm glad to see lots of people already working towards this vision of the future. Keep up the good fight! But from my own observations these types of changes involving mass adoption could take years or it could be a matter of months. It's just too hard to predict. But as long as people are learning and evolving, eventually there will be enough demand for an open, federated social web on a mass scale. At that point we can stop talking about Facebook all the time and get back to building real relationships with family and friends.

A Social Web based on URLs: Decentralized Microblogging

I've mentioned this before, but I haven’t been updating my personal website that much lately. There are lots of things I love about owning my own site: I own the database that stores all of my posts (and can move it or delete it whenever I want) and I can easily modify the way it works and looks, and even change my domain name. Despite these features, I find myself posting more frequently on social networking sites. I can post faster and quicker, and receive more feedback in a shorter amount of time. There is no doubt that being able to post a piece of content and knowing that a good percentage of my friends will immediately see it, comment, and share it is a great feeling - a direct appeal to ego. Likewise being on the other end of things and commenting and sharing makes you feel like a part of a conversation.

So this got me thinking, how can I get that level of speed and interaction on my own website that is hosted on my own server? I would like to be able to quickly share content and network my site with a few friends. So I started thinking about if it’d be possible to build an organic social web simply based on unique URLs. If we can assume a unique URL is associated with a person, then we just need a common language that can automatically link people together.

We can look to Twitter as a model for such a language. Twitter’s character limit has caused its users to develop new syntax to express greater amounts of information in 140 characters or less. Ultimately the syntax is just a way of adding another level of meaning and power to a hyperlink - @somebody is not just a link, but specifically a link to a person, and furthermore using it means that the person will get notified when you use it. Similarly #hashtag gives the power to make loose, indirect connections with others to form ad hoc groups and allow a person to join a more global conversation. With those concepts in mind, we have a new shared language that can be adopted by others to allow communication across an open web, independent of the platform.

The first step is to extend the @reply syntax beyond a twitter username. This should be easy, especially if a URL is uniquely associated with a person. Let’s say Eric posts a message to his website, and references his friend Jerry whose website is

Eric from posts the following status:

"Reading Blink by Malcom Gladwell. you should check it out! #bookclub"

This status is assigned a unique URL of

Assuming both Eric and Jerry have blogging software that understand this syntax, the blogging software will automatically try to contact or “ping” The whole process might look something like this:

  1. First pings with a link to the post referencing
  2. If receives the ping but doesn’t know or can’t verify the ping originates from him, nothing happens.
  3. If receives the ping and is friends with then visits and copies the original post from to and displays it within his status updates (i.e. on his "wall").

Jerry’s website has now copied over Eric’s post and it gets displayed within his status updates (similar to your Facebook Wall). As long as a person can be identified with a single URL and there is a common language shared between the server software for each person, there is no reason we can't just make these kind of links between URLs to create an open, social web.

I hope to have a working demo* of this kind of decentralized microblogging software soon. I think having a proof-of-concept of this will explain things better than I could in a blog entry and I don't want to overanalyze things too much. There is lots more to talk about, especially with the technical side of things but I’ll save that for a later post.

That’s enough for now, but the basic idea is this: the internet is powered by hyperlinks. So far we only think about hyperlinks as representing a piece of information or a computer. But if a link can represent a person, and we have a common language to connect and share these links between people, then it should be possible to create a decentralized social web based on URLs.

*EDIT already proves this kind of thing can sort of work with OStatus protocol. Integrating and generalizing this into a wider publishing platform (not just status updates) with your own hub included seems like the next step.

Synth Dreams pt. 2

First, some sounds I recorded demoing how I can control frequency of a 74C14 oscillator with an Arduino:

synth-chomp1.mp3 (warning: generally noisy as hell)

Kinda fun, but not exactly the direction I'm trying to go in. To get the pitch accuracy I want will require some more thinking.

So last time I got the Arduino MIDI-IN working and a simple square wave oscillator based on a 74C14 going. In order to control the frequency and pitch, I thought it'd be a good idea to try and use a digital pot (AD5206/AD5204) to control the oscillator frequency value with the Arduino, based on this project I found. This actually sorta failed miserably (albeit in an interesting/good way) as the digital pot only has 256 linear steps between it's minimum and maximum values. What this means is that when I tried to put it into the equation for the RC circuit (see example circuit) to map it to piano key notes it sounded really smooth on the lower frequencies but less and less smooth (and way off a piano tuning) as it swept up to the higher frequencies. This makes sense based on how we hear pitches - it's logarithmic. We hear the perceived interval between "A-220 and A-440" as the same as between "A-440 and A-880". Here's a graph of what that looks like. Higher octave intervals have a greater frequency distance between notes. Since the 256 values are distributed linearly over the total frequency range, but perceived pitch is logarithmic, this means the pitch resolution gets increasingly worse the higher the desired pitch.

Anyway I played with the value of the capacitor to see if I could find a value that could at least get me *close* to notes on a piano, and allow me to change notes with the Arduino. Here's a giant spreadsheet that shows what I ended up with, based on some numbers taken from this wikipedia article.

The result? I can make tons of Pac Man sounds, just listen to the samples I recorded. But I just can't get the pitch accuracy I want with the octave range I want. I'd like to get *some* sort of control over the pitch so it could be used melodically. It's sorta close, and then again not at all. I could get a digital pot with a better resolution, or try to map it nonlinearly, but that means more money and not necessarily perfect results (just *less* glitchy pitchy). It might make more sense to just hardwire 12 oscillators and use the Arduino to just control the volume and mix of each oscillator as they are triggered, and divide down to get more octaves. Also I like this approach because I could sort of manually adjust the "tuning" of each note with a tiny potentiometer, sort of like a guitar.

There is probably a way to hack it together with the approach I was trying, but part of my goal here is to keep things simple and obvious. The lesson I learned is that trying to control analog components with a digital component means discrete values will fuck up your day, unless you really, really like Pac Man.

( categories: )